Inmates accused in prison killing seek separate trials


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The two federal prison inmates accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., five years ago this week are now seeking to separate their trials.

Following an extensive defense investigation that has included the review of hundreds of thousands of Bureau of Prisons records, attorneys for inmates Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero say separate trials are necessary to ensure each gets a fair shake.

“Each defendant may present evidence that is antagonistic to the other and, because prosecutors do not possess the evidence, could turn one defendant’s counsel into a second prosecutor against the other,” defense attorneys for both inmates noted in a recent court filing.

Citing research, the defense attorneys further argue that “this case presents an especially high risk of prejudice” because jurors may lump both defendants together since both are long-time felons from the Northern Mariana Islands.

A May 29 court filing indicated that Fresno-based federal prosecutors oppose severing the case into two trials, although they have not yet filed papers explaining their reasons. Efficiency is often cited as a reason to hold one trial instead of two. A judge will make the final decision.

Sablan and Leon Guerrero are charged with first-degree murder, and potentially face the death penalty, for the June 20, 2008, killing of correctional officer Jose Rivera. Prison videotape, acknowledged by defense attorneys, recorded the late afternoon episode, in which Sablan struck Rivera and then both inmates chased the 22-year-old Navy veteran until they tackled him.

“Mr. Sablan jumps on top of him,” defense attorneys recounted, describing the videotape, in the June 14 court filing. “For another minute and a half, they wrestle on the floor. Mr. Sablan is seen swinging a weapon.”

But though the prison videotape “shows them appearing to act in concert,” defense attorneys argue, the two men had different states of mind. There is an important question about whether there was any premeditation, and Leon Guerrero’s attorneys will “present evidence that he is mentally retarded,” Bronson noted.

Sablan’s attorneys, in turn, have declared in another recent court filing that Leon Guerrero was “acting with paranoid and delusional beliefs” that included an errant conviction that Rivera and other guards were part of a larger conspiracy.

Sablan is represented by a team of attorneys that include the Sacramento-based federal defender’s office. Leon Guerrero is represented by a team that includes Fresno-based attorney Salvatore Sciandra and Pasadena-based Richard G. Novak Jr.

The two inmates share some common traits, but also present some potentially crucial differences.

Sablan primarily grew up on Saipan and Leon Guerrero on Guam. Both men are tattooed, of similar age and have similarly impoverished backgrounds and extensive criminal records.

“Each was raised in abject poverty, living in shacks that were primitive and without running water or more than occasional electricity,” Edward Bronson, a defense consultant and emeritus political science professor at California State University at Chico, noted in a recent court filing.

In a partially redacted statement, Bronson added that both men have “a shared background of family violence.”

Bronson said putting both at the same defense table could result in a “negative halo” effect, in which jurors attribute one inmate’s misdeeds to the other.

Leon Guerrero was previously implicated in the 1987 murder of a prison guard in Guam. An appeals court later reversed his conviction. Sablan was previously convicted of murder after he “killed Julie, his wife and the mother of their two children, with a machete,” Bronson stated.

The defense investigation has entailed review of “in excess of 500,000 pages and in excess of 100 videos” provided as part of the pre-trial discovery process, prosecutors noted in a June 17 court filing. The prosecutors, Justice Department trial attorney Bonnie Hannan and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawrence W. Rice Jr., said in their latest filing that defense attorneys are engaged in a “fishing expedition” that’s costly and unnecessary because of the “staggering volume of materials already produced.”

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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